Myths After the Midnight Ride

Seldom has fact supported legend, seldom has nature imitated art so

--Edmund S. Morgan

Even as the event was still happening, the legend began to grow. Long before Paul Revere reached home again, rumors of the midnight ride began to fly across the countryside. Returning British soldiers reported their encounter with "the noted Paul Revere" on the Concord Road. A newspaper in the city of New York informed its readers that Paul Revere was "missing and supposed to be waylaid and slain." 1 In Boston, the story of the signals from the Old North Church made too good a story for Whig leaders to keep secret very long. Within days, a Tory refugee named Ann Hulton wrote to an English friend, "The people in the country . . . had a signal, it is supposed, by a light from one of the steeples in town, upon the troops embarking." 2

By early June, the first report of Paul Revere's ride appeared in print. Its author was William Gordon, Roxbury's English-born Congregationalist minister, who appointed himself the first historian of the American Revolution. After the battle, Gordon rode to Concord and interviewed many participants, including Paul Revere himself. In the first week of June, he published an account of the battle which mentioned Revere by name, and briefly described the midnight ride, the capture, the rescue of John Hancock's trunk, and Revere's presence at the battle of Lexington. Gordon's essay was very short, but remarkably full and accurate. Yet even as he wrote, the first of many myths was beginning to take form around the subject. Its inventors were the participants themselves. 3

Participant Historians: The Myth of Injured Innocence

While Gordon was publishing the first account, the Whig leaders themselves kept silent. Many had sworn a vow of secrecy about their activities, and were guarded even in conversation with one another. One of their sons remembered that as late as the early 19th century, the story of the signal lamps and the midnight ride was "common talk at my father's, where they often met, although I can call to mind they were careful of calling names, having some fear of liability." 4

Fear of liability was not the only factor. The silence of the Whigs also had another cause. The elaborate preparations that lay behind the midnight ride did not fit well with the Whig image of Lexington and Concord as an unprovoked attack upon an unresisting people. Here was the first of many myths that came to encrust the subject--the myth of injured American innocence, which the Whigs themselves actively propagated as an instrument of their cause.

To maintain that interpretation, the earliest written account of the midnight ride by Paul Revere himself appears to have been suppressed by Whig leaders. In the aftermath of the battles Revere and many other eyewitnesses were asked to draft a deposition about the first shot at Lexington. He produced a document that was doubly displeasing to those who requested it. Revere refused to testify unequivocally that the Regulars had fired first at Lexington Common. He also added an account of the midnight ride that suggested something of the American preparations that preceded the event.

Other depositions were rushed into print by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and circulated widely in Britain and America, but Revere's testimony was not among them. It did not support the American claim that the Regulars had started the fighting, and revealed more about the revolutionary movement than Whig leaders wished to be known.


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